Not every musical about cowboys and the 19th-century Western frontier can be Oklahoma!, which admittedly is a tall order for any musical. But sadly, Jubilee Theatre's Black Spurs isn't even up to the standards of Texas, the historical musical/drama seen every summer in Palo Duro Canyon.
Texas is hokey to be sure, a tourist-friendly mix of state history, kitsch and fun musical theater songs and choreography; it's something every Texan should do at some point. Besides, the Canyon is spectacular. If Black Spurs, a world premiere musical about cowboys of color traveling the Chisholm Trail from Fort Worth to Kansas, has hopes of a life outside of Jubilee, there's still lots of work to do. If not a complete overhaul.
The musical was the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts grant with the stipulation that it debut by the end of 2012. That put book writer Celeste Bedford Walker and composer Ron Hasley on a fast track to git'er done. They and director Tre Garrett obviously needed more time.
It required research about black cowboys in Texas, some of whom migrated here from the Deep South after slavery was abolished. Others had been here for generations, and worked as ranch hands, along with the Mexican vaqueros, on cattle ranches. Walker used her historical research as a framing device for a rather innocuous plot.
Ranch hand Rutherford (Laurence Pete) is called on to lead another longhorn trail drive from Fort Worth to Dodge City, Kansas, much to the chagrin of his wife Lucinda (Patricia Hill). His team includes chef Cookie (Stefon Green), vaquero Juan (Alejandro Sandoval II), Clement (Robert Rouse), Bub (Stephen Warren) and the story's hero, Sam Pete (Winston Daniels).
In Kansas, they stop in a "black town" and encounter similar situations that you'd see in any spaghetti western, such as bar fights, shoot-outs and saloon girls, led by madame Jessie Belle (Hill; several roles are double cast). Sam also meets his love interest, Savannah (Lorens Portalatin), who is engaged to someone else. There's also a bull-riding contest that allows the team to make some much-needed cash, and for Sam to come to terms with his father's death. Aside from that, and struggles with weather and the tough landscape, there is little conflict, certainly not enough to make the story compelling.
It's tricky material to put in a musical setting, because let's face it, testosterone-fueled subjects like cowmen, gang warfare or boxing are tough to keep manly when there's all this spontaneous song and dance going on. But it worked for Oklahoma!, West Side Story and, reportedly, the Broadway-bound musical version of Rocky, which has been a hit in Germany. (But so was David Hasselhoff.)
This is great subject matter; the story of cowboys of color hasn't been explored much, if at all, in American theater.
What Black Spurs needs most, aside from good ol' dramatic conflict, are memorable music and songs. The ones here, like "Spring Time in Texas" and "Liv'n High on the Hog" are painfully generic, and not helped by musical director Michael Plantz's performing them on a chintzy-sounding electronic keyboard. It sounds recorded, actually, and piped in. An upright would have worked wonders, especially in the saloon scenes. It's also hard not to imagine what a composer like Jubilee's former music man Joe Rogers could have done with this material. He would have offered texture, at least.
Patricia Hill and Laurence Pete do their best with thinly drawn characters, with Hill getting some standout vocal moments. The rest of the cast phones it in.
Quinton Jones' choreography feels like an afterthought, too.
It's going to take some major rope tricks to turn what looked like a promising opportunity for a new musical on an unfamiliar subject into something salvageable. Jubilee was once known for its original musicals, and while Rogers and the late Rudy Eastman's shows may not have been Masterpiece Theatre, they frequently had wit, charm and musical hooks at every turn.
If this team can lasso some of that magic, then maybe Black Spurs will have a fighting chance.